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The Changing Face of Command – The Story of John Keegan

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John Keegan (1934–2012) was one of the foremost experts in military history and strategy. Due to a childhood illness, he could not serve in the army but became a military historian and teacher to top officers in the U.K. and U.S. He wrote many books, including definitive accounts on the two world wars as well as on various other battles.

Keegan realized that war is a tragedy. However, at times it may be a necessity. Thus, one of Keegan’s great contributions was an analysis of the type of leadership top armies require and how top military leadership has changed from ancient to modern times. Keegan describes four types of military leaders through history.

Alexander the Great – The Heroic Leader

Alexander (356 BCE – 323 BCE) became King at the young age of twenty. He then spent all his short life conquering the region from Greece eastwards up to India, including Egypt and parts of North Africa. He created one of the largest empires in the ancient world. He was undefeated till he died (some say of poisoning) at the age of thirty-three.

Keegan explains how Alexander was “a supreme hero” who led his armies from the front. Alexander showed great personal bravery. Alexander “accepting the dangers of close combat and rode into battle in front of his soldiers riding on his special horse Bucephalus.” In an age when battles were fought in close combat, with swords and spears, seeing their leader in their midst gave the common soldier immense confidence and was a key reason for Alexander’s success.

Wellington – The Cerebral General

Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (1769 –1852) was an English general who later became Britain’s prime minister. He is most famous for defeating Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo.

Unlike the battles Alexander took part in, the Battle of Waterloo was fought by soldiers who had old fashioned guns, “muskets.” These allowed soldiers to be some distance from their enemies as the musket could fire a heavy ball for around a hundred meters. For rapid movement, however, the cavalry (on horses) was still used. Each soldier also had a bayonet (a sharp sword) attached to the end of his musket in case hand to hand combat was required.

Unlike Alexander, Wellington did not fight himself, and neither was he at the front of his armies. He was the general who positioned himself just behind his troops, often at a height so that he could see the way the battle was progressing. He strategized and gave orders for his armies to implement his orders. More than personal valor, tactics and quick on the ground decisions were required from generals like Wellington.

Eisenhower and the Role of Generals in World War II

World War II took place between 1939 to 1945. The change in the instruments of war from the time of Wellington was dramatic. No longer were battles won just by armies. The air force and the navy were equally involved. Also, the theatre of action was not localized to one battle, but many battles over vast territories raged simultaneously. Also, the instruments of war had changed from personal guns of soldiers to bombs dropped by planes to armored tanks. In the face of these changes, Eisenhower, as the Supreme Commander Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe had a completely different role from either Alexander or Wellington.

More like a CEO of a large company, Eisenhower had to manage senior generals, look at logistics, coordinate with elected civilian politicians as well as be part of a large team that decided on strategy and tactics. Alexander was in the front of his army, Wellington, still in physical danger, was just behind his army, Eisenhower had to be based far removed from any physical danger.

Colin Powel – The Modern General

During the first, successful Iraq war, Colin Powell was the U.S.’s Joint Chief of Staff (1989–93). In contrast to World War II, the Iraq war showed how missiles and unmanned aircraft were the main attack force. It was only after the missiles had done their damage that troops would enter the theatre of war.

Modern satellite communications also meant that Powel could be even more removed from the point of battles than Eisenhower. Also, those firing the missiles could even be situated on another continent. Thus, leadership has moved even further away from the actual action. The requirement is of someone with great strategic awareness, and there is no need for Alexander’s type of personal bravery.

Keegan points out that the modern general has to conduct wars in a manner like a computer game. The risk is that suffering is so far away that generals become less aware of what is actually painfully occurring on the ground. Despite his carrer as a military historian, Keegan always hoped that mankind could learn to use diplomacy to reach peaceful solutions. He wrote that “Mankind, if it is to survive, must choose its leaders by the test of their intellectuality; and, leadership must always justify itself by its detachment, moderation and power of analysis.”

© Kaikhushru Taraporevala

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